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Myanmar hits new obstacles on road to democracy

Calls grow for past wrongdoings to be brought to justice

Myanmar hits new obstacles on road to democracy

Former political prisoners Ye Naing Win (left) and Zaw Myint. correspondent, Yangon

August 11, 2014

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After Ye Naing Win was arrested by officers of Myanmar's military intelligence in 1997, he was handcuffed on a chair in the middle of a large, empty room. 

“They wouldn't let me sleep. The officers each questioned me for two hours, taking it in turns without stopping,” he recalled in a recent interview in Yangon. “They shone a bright light at me. I was punched and slapped.”

A construction worker and part-time political activist, Ye Naing Win had helped organize demonstrations at Yangon University. He served nearly nine years in jail for his links to the activist underground that worked to organize resistance against the country's military junta.

Now 46, Ye Naing Win is among as many as 7,000 people in Myanmar who were detained for political activities during military rule. The country is undergoing a stuttering transition toward democracy, and, as speech and politics become freer, one question is inevitably asked more and more - what would justice mean, and is it possible?

Nearby Cambodia is bringing a kind of justice to the perpetrators of past atrocities via a UN-backed tribunal, which passed down two guilty verdicts last week. And there is no shortage of allegations of human rights abuses against previous Myanmar regimes, which, as well as locking up political opponents, fought bloody wars with ethnic rebel armies, employed forced labor and oversaw large-scale evictions.

“Calls for acknowledgement and remedy from former political prisoners and democracy activists are gaining voice, amid a flourishing of general civic activity,” a report from the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) said last month.

“The plight of those who have lost the most productive years of their life to torture, inhuman treatment, and political imprisonment is spurring support for rehabilitation efforts and ways of honoring their suffering.”

After 21 days of “interviews” with intelligence officers, Ye Naing Win was swiftly convicted and moved to Mingyan prison, in the dry plains of central Myanmar, where he began three years of solitary confinement with limited food and water. 

The military government justified its harsh treatment of political opponents by characterizing them as insurgents in a country wracked by dissent after a popular uprising toppled dictator General Ne Win in 1988, only to bring to power more generals. They were subjected to cruel and unusual punishments that suggest unchecked sadism on the part of their jailers.

“We were ordered to catch flies. Some people who were poor, their families couldn’t bring them food, so they didn’t have any flies in their cell,” Ye Naing Win said. “We had to use a plastic bag and just grab them out of the air. They demanded that we catch 50 flies per day. If we didn’t please them, they would beat us severely … A lot of us went mad.”

When he regained his freedom in 2005, he was weakened -- struggling to carry heavy loads in his construction job -- and traumatized. “I couldn't cross the road myself. I couldn't judge how fast the cars were coming,” said Ye Naing Win, who now works as a labor rights activist.

The former head of Myanmar's military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, is seen as responsible for much of the abuses meted out to political opponents during the 1990s. Khin Nyunt, also a former prime minister, was later purged from the junta and placed under house arrest, but now lives a free and prosperous life in Yangon, running an art gallery.

“I don’t want to say specific words for those people,” said Ye Naing Win when asked if he is seeking any kind of revenge against his jailers. “The main offenders are the military dictatorship and the higher officers.

“I would like to demand that all the cronies and military officers take responsibility for it.”

The current government of President Thein Sein, a general-turned-reformer, has released hundreds of political prisoners in mass amnesties since it took power in 2011. The government has collaborated with civil society groups to review prisoners' cases and discuss which inmates should be deemed political prisoners. 

ICTJ has been working with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), conducting workshops with former political prisoners in Yangon and Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar, border to identify what “justice” might mean for them.

Ruben Carranza, the director of the ICTJ’s reparative justice program, said that most “see acknowledgement of their experience as political prisoners as decisive in terms of how they see justice”.

“There is still a degree of denial on the part of government that they were political prisoners,” said Carranza. “[An apology] should mean recognizing them as political prisoners: that their imprisonment was unjust because it was based on suppressing the political beliefs that they exercised.”

But as well as wanting acknowledgement, former prisoners also talk about the tangible impacts of their incarceration, in terms of their health and the loss of economic and educational opportunities, he said. “Whenever they talk about those impacts, they clearly also aspire to have those impacts addressed.” 

The ICTJ has discussed examples of how other transitional governments -- including post-junta states Argentina, the Philippines and Chile -- provided reparations to former political prisoners. However, with Myanmar's transition still uncertain, many consider it dangerous even to mention justice, for fear of spooking those implicated in past crimes that still cling to economic or political power.

“There is some hesitation in expressing that expectation that the government will come forward and provide help. And there is even greater hesitation if you talk about anything that involves individual accountability, beside the government,” Carranza said. “That's very understandable given the situation where releases have been made but re-arrests are still possible.”

Although President Thein Sein claimed that with a high-profile New Year amnesty he had met a commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, the AAPP says that many remain behind bars and the number has been “steadily increasing” since the start of this year.

“By the end of July, there were 70 political prisoners incarcerated in Burma, with approximately 114 accused activists awaiting trial,” the AAPP said in an update last week. 

Although many of those people are jailed for holding demonstrations without the permission of local authorities, public gatherings are now commonplace in Myanmar. Activists now memorialize past government atrocities, notably the August 8, 1988, massacre of protesters against one-party rule, which was marked last week in Yangon.

Former political prisoners have also begun marking important dates, like the 1989 suppression of protests in Tharrawaddy prison, Bago Region.

“We refused to work because we were political prisoners, not common criminals,” recalled one of the prisoners, Zaw Myint, now 49. “We were told to lie on our front and they hit us with bamboo canes and batons.”

The so-called “anti-labor protest,” in which three political prisoners were killed in the prison authorities’ response, was publicly commemorated last year by survivors, in a sign that such events will not be easily forgotten, the ICTJ said. 

“Survivors called for their experiences to be acknowledged by the government and society at large, for younger generations to learn lessons from their experiences, and for activists to guard against the recurrence of such atrocities,” the group’s report said.

Zaw Myint, who now works as a journalist, said he valued an apology above all and rejected the idea he should receive compensation or monetary reparations.

“We don't want material support from the government, but we want out dignity,” he said. “The most responsible people should own up to all the people in the country. They have to confess and apologize to all political prisoners.”

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